The Ducks have come to view their playoff journey as a roller-coaster ride that’s testing their ability to keep emotions in check while they navigate steep climbs and deep dips, sometimes careening from one extreme to the other in dramatic and quick succession.
“I think our season has been a little bit of a roller coaster too,” right wing Jakob Silfverberg said, recalling their slow start, surges both upward and downward, and an 11-0-3 close that carried them to their fifth straight Pacific Division title. “It's as tough mentally as it is physically, but I definitely think we have the tools and the experience to handle it, and so far we've been doing a really good job at it.”
The Ducks were outshot 40-20 and have been outshot 119-76 in the series, evidence that they’re not testing goaltender Pekka Rinne often enough or sternly enough. Some of that can be attributed to the sterling defense played by the streaking Predators, who drew energy from a passionate crowd at Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday to win their sixth straight home playoff game this spring and 10th in a row over two seasons. The streaky Ducks have alternated wins and losses the past six games and Tuesday looked like a team that was playing its fourth game in seven days.
“I thought we had a decent start and it just seemed like we ran out of gas,” coach Randy Carlyle said Wednesday after analyzing the game. “I thought our hockey club was flat with emotion and you’ve got to give the opposition credit for taking that out of us too. There’s frustration because of their aggressiveness and playing in our face, and that we weren’t allowed to execute at the level that we had been accustomed to.”
The Ducks’ task Thursday in Game 4 is to regain their energy and lose that frustration. If they can’t, their roller-coaster ride won’t last much longer.
The Predators stayed remarkably patient Tuesday while keeping Ducks goaltender John Gibson consistently busy, and they capitalized on their fourth power play to score the decisive goal with 2minutes 43 seconds left in the third period. They were never swayed by the crowd’s pleas to shoot during power plays until they had the shot they wanted, and they maintained their structure instead of breaking down into a bunch of individuals.
“I think it's safe to say that our team and this organization, we built this team as a playoff team. And we knew that our job in the regular season was to get ourselves to the postseason and then it was for us to do the work,” said P.K. Subban, who has added strong defensive dimensions to his game without losing the mobility that makes him a fine fit with the Predators’ defense corps.
“They put together a team and we all love each other in that dressing room. But this is a business at the end of the day and you have to win to stay together, and we want to keep this group together. So we knew that having a good postseason run was important for us. And right now we're continuing to build every day and find ways to be successful every night. Every night it's a new story line in the playoffs.”
The Predators haven’t lost two straight playoff games this spring and have maintained a consistent emotional level. Subban, acquired from Montreal last summer for Shea Weber in a controversial trade that so far has been a win for the Predators, credited the strong leadership of team captain Mike Fisher — who’s scoreless in 13 playoff games — and other senior players for keeping things positive and purposeful. The Ducks’ leaders have done much the same thing, as Subban acknowledged.
“You watch them over the playoff run, they’ve been down goals and they’ve found ways to come back and win hockey games and bring themselves back in, so we know they have that leadership over there too,” Subban said. “But [Tuesday] night, being down 1-0 in our building, we found a way to tie it up and then ultimately to win the game, and I think that’s important to our hockey club.
“I’ve said it before: Our team doesn’t have that much playoff experience through our lineup but we’re gaining that every night, and it shows.”
For Carlyle, the key for the Ducks in Game 4 is being more determined about getting to the front of the net to distract Rinne.
“You just have to play a lot more complete game,” Carlyle said. “And we’ve got to be in a much more competitive state.”
The Ducks have bounced back before, but the Predators will make it tough. They’re on a fun ride too, and theirs might continue for a while.